July 20, 2018
Like me, you want to assume that every child in Missouri gets a strong, equal education no matter what ZIP code he or she lives in. Instead, continued state funding cuts and tricks to the books are leaving students in rural and poorer communities behind. In addition to negatively affecting those children’s future college and career readiness, it’s hurting the state’s ability to be competitive and attract companies that are seeking a skilled and educated workforce.
In 2005, Missouri lawmakers created a school funding formula that was based on a simple idea: Every school district should have a minimum amount of money per pupil. With Republicans in control of both houses and the governorship, the goal was modest: $6,117 per child per year.
This puts us in the bottom third of what other states spend, with our neighbor Iowa spending $10,688 per pupil. Still, this was welcome, as the goal was to boost poorer school districts that lacked the local tax revenue needed to reach the target — particularly smaller outer suburbs and rural schools.
This investment was priced at $800 million — more than our legislators wanted to pay. So it was to be phased in over seven years. Initially it was a success, and per-pupil spending in Missouri schools rose by as much as 20 percent in some of our poorest districts. When the 2007 recession hit, instead of understanding that economic downturns make it more crucial than ever to invest in our children, the Legislature began to engage in a legislative sleight of hand that defunded schools and relied increasingly on funding from state gambling revenues.
The promise that gambling would ensure well-funded, quality schools was proven false within just a few years of its legality in 1984, yet in 2009 lawmakers removed a 5 percent cap on formula spending growth from the original plan, pretending casino revenue would rise to cover that gap. Of course it didn’t, and nothing else was done.
Today, more affluent suburbs of our biggest cities are going to the polls and increasing their property taxes to pay for their schools — because they can. But other kids in the state are being left behind.
In 2011, the Missouri Legislature changed the minimum school requirement to 174 days or 1,044 hours. This allowed for something previously unthinkable: decreasing the number of days per week students spend getting an education. A school week could be and has been shortened to four slightly longer days in 20 Missouri districts, with more districts adopting this schedule every year with one goal in mind: saving money.
In addition to being a serious disadvantage to students losing an extra day of learning per week, it’s a burden on their already hard-working parents. Those hard-working, middle-class parents working Monday through Friday now have to figure out reliable and safe child care for one full day every week, usually at their own out-of-pocket cost, which can be significant.
Missouri’s new chief executive took aim at spending on state universities and transportation programs as part of his budget-cutting maneuver. (Yes, he departed, but his replacement is dedicated to the same unfair, failed education policies.) The Republican legislators seem to be keeping current funding for school intact by mostly “only” cutting transportation funding.
However, schools need to get their students to classes, and it’s particularly challenging in smaller and more rural districts — so it forces those schools to make cuts elsewhere in order to preserve transportation.
In the Seneca School District in Joplin, they are looking at getting $65,000 for transportation instead of $129,000. What happens when that is cut in half? Do they get just half of their students to classes? No. Teachers will be let go, reading and math specialists will not be hired, class sizes will increase, classroom budgets for supplies will be cut, field trips canceled and after-school activities like sports and music will be jeopardized. These extracurriculars are proven by research to make smarter, better-adapted adults.
Our Legislature needs to take seriously its role in educating Missouri’s future workforce by fully funding our schools and creating a state education system that makes Missouri competitive with its neighbors. As it stands now, “fully funding” the education formula is a misnomer. The children of Missouri deserve better.
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